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Relationality and Social–Ecological Systems: Going Beyond or Behind Sustainability and Resilience

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Lejano, R.P., 2019. Relationality and Social–Ecological Systems: Going Beyond or Behind Sustainability and Resilience [WWW Document]. Sustainability.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
Sustainability and resilience are most often thought of as systems concepts that evaluate the
state and function of objects of interest as well as the system as a whole. In this article, we shift the
focus toward the “space in between”—i.e., the relationships among objects in the system. The article
develops the concept of relationality, which provides a new lens to understanding what social and
material processes drive or impede the functioning and sustainability of a social–ecological system
(SES). Relationality seeks to understand a system not so much as a set of interacting objects but a web
of relationships. By foregrounding relationships, we are better able to understand the rich ground
of practice that guides a system in ways that the formal rational designs do not explain. Several
examples are drawn from the literature that suggests how a relational analysis might proceed and
what social–ecological phenomena we can better explain by this means. The article ends with a note
on how the promise of relational analyses also bears in it its challenges.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This article argues for relationality where systems are  understood not so much as
a collection of objects but a web of relationships. These relationships, moreover, are heterogeneous, connecting human and nonhuman, animate as well as inanimate, things. The relations may be described as aspects, material/energy exchanges as well as social and cultural relations. For examples, the adaptation of  the original idea of keystone species to the biocultural realm, discussing how some key social actors drive the workings of a social-ecological system. A description of the functional role of a keystone species is also a description of its relations to other elements in the system. These webs are also patterns of power relationships—e.g., some have combined a political ecological lens to better analyze power relations.

We must understand relationship as encompassing the material (e.g., activities and mass/energy exchange) and the non-material (i.e., identity and meaning). So being, a system is described as the pattern that results from the working and reworking of relationships and, when the SES becomes predictable, takes on the essence of an institution. Defining and operationalizing relationality will necessarily be an ongoing task of research. For now,
we can employ a rudimentary three-part conceptualization of relationality:

first, the activities and identity of self on it’s own;
second, the activities and identity of self vis-a-vis another;
and third, the joint activities and identity of self-and-other.

The article clearly shows that relational analysis is a field that needs further development. The examples given are not explcitly doing relational systems analysis. Maybe the easiest way to describe the endeavour is the articles' contrasting relational analysis  with a common type of social network analysis where a link might be expressed as a 0,1 variable while a relational analysis would provide  a rich description of such a link. These descriptions can include non-material as well as material dimensions of relationship.
Point of Strength
The bold endeavour to present a complementary method to analyse complex systems is commendable. The candid demonstration of opportunities as well as weaknesses in the approach challenges the reader to take on the relay.

The approach could be adapted to seminars or workshops, where students could explore possible relations and how these construct the system.